The Rise of the Franks

Europe’s Search for Stability

As the Roman and Germanic Peoples and cultures blended after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Franks played an especially significant part in this process of cultural fusion.

The Kingdom of the Franks was the most enduring of all the Germanic states and it became the center of a new Europe.

In the 4th century the Franks began a slow movement along the east bank of the Rhine, across the river and into Gaul.

By 481 they occupied the northern part of Gaul as far as the city of Paris and in the same year Clovis I became ruler of one of the small Frankish kingdoms.

With his death in 511, Clovis had united the Franks into a single kingdom.

This goal of unification had been achieved through marriage alliances, treachery, assassination and the manipulation of religion.

Clovis was converted to Christianity in 496 when he was fighting the Alemani which was a pagan tribe.

On the verge of being defeated, Clovis called upon Christ for help.

Clovis won the army and with his army was baptized Christian and was the only orthodox ruler in the West as all the other Germanic tribes had embraced Arian Christianity.

The Christian conversion of the Franks is considered to be one of the most significant events in European and Western history.

For eventually it would lead to an alliance of convenience between the Franks and the papacy for this was a political advantage not open to his Arian enemies.

In 507 Clovis attacked the Visigoths who ruled Spain and the Visigoths abandoned southern Gaul.

Clovis died four years later at the age of 45, but the geographical extent of his conquests would eventually be shaped into the French nation.

By the middle of the 7th century the Frankish state had lost most of the essential characteristics of Roman civilization for the Roman system of taxation and administration had completely collapsed.

International commerce had ceased except for small scale trade in luxury items.

The fact that there was no middle class due to the absence of trade meant that society was composed of the nobility and Roman and German families owned vast estates that were quickly becoming fiefdoms.

In fact only about 10% of the peasant population was free in the 7th century.

A new period was created when Charles Martel became the palace leader in 714. Charles is best remembered for his victory over the Muslims which earned him the surname of martel which means the "Hammer".

In 711 an army of Moors from North Africa had invaded Spain and by 718 the weak empire of the Visigoths had collapsed.

The Muslims then began making raids across the Pyrenees mountains.

In 732 Martel met the Muslims in a battle near Tours, deep within the Frankish kingdom and the Muslims were defeated.

To effect this victory at the Battle of Tours Charles carried out a military reform among his cavalry when he required the use of the foot stirrup which gave the mounted warrior a firmer seat while in battle.

Charles also rewarded a force of professional mounted soldiers with sufficient land fo each knight to maintain himself, his equipment and his war horses.

Pepin the Short who was Martel’s son ruled from 741 to 768 and was a good ruler.

To legalize the regal power already being exercised by the mayors of the palace he requested and received a ruling from the Pope that stipulated that whoever had actual power should be the legal ruler.

The pope sanctioned Pepin’s fait acompli because he needed protector.

In 751 the Lombards the seat of the Byzantine empire in Italy and were demanding tribute from the Pope.

Upon his coronation Pepin agreed to armed intervention against the Lombards in support of the Pope.

In 756 a Frankish army forced the Lombard king to stop his conquest and Pepin as he agreed to do transferred title of the Exarchate of Ravenna to the Pope.

Essentially the Donation of Pepin made the Pope the official ruler over the Papal States.

This alliance between the Papacy and the Franks would affect European history for centuries.

It clearly sped up the separation of Latin from Greek Christianity by giving the Pope a dependable Western ally in place of the Byzantines, it created the Papal States, and most importantly it reaffirmed the religious sanction to Western Kingship that would in time contribute to the rise of monarches strong enough to pose a threat to the papacy.

The next ruler of the Franks was Pepin’s son, Charlemagne who ruled form 768 to 814, who was also known as Charles the Great.

Charles was a great natural born leader, a great horseman, and was a warrior king who insisted on leading armies into combat.

In Charles day there were many internal feuds and conflicts among the Muslims in Spain and he consequently thought about extending his dominion into that region.

In 778 he crossed the Pyrenees and after some modest success it headed back and as the army marched back north it was attacked by some Christian Basques.

In the ensuing battle a Frankish leader named Roland was killed and the memory of his heroism was enshrined in the epic poem the Song of Roland.

Later the Franks were successful in driving the Moors out of what is today Barcelona and populated the area called Catalonia with French people.

Charlemagne also conquered the Bavarians and the Saxons who were the last of the independent tribes.

Charlemagne also intervened in Italian politics as expansionist dreams once again drove the Lombard king to invade the territories of the papacy.

Upon the orders of the Pope Charlemagne defeated the Lombards in 774.

Probably the most important single event in Charlemagne’s reign took place on Christmas day in 800 where he was crowned by the Pope as Emperor of the Romans.

The ceremony revealed the desire for a united Europe and by crowning him Emperor the Pope took the initiative of being a maker of emperors and assumed a position of superiority.

Charlemagne’s territories included all of the western area of the old Roman Empire. The Carolingian territories were divided into 300 administrative units called grafs, in addition there were dukes and other military officials.

He also fostered a revival of learning and the arts and in 789 he decreed that every monastery must have a school for the education of boys and he was greatly concerned about the illiteracy of the clergy.

Handwriting as reformed and the preservation of classical manuscripts were some of the significant achievements of the Carolingian period and copyists labored to reproduce the pagan and Christian works.

Charlemagne is considered to be one of the most influential figures in world history for he extended the Christian civilization in Europe, set up barriers to prevent the incursions of the Slavs, and created a new Europe whose center was in the north rather than in the Mediterranean and in which a degree of law and order prevailed.

Before his death in 814 Charlemagne ignoring the Pope, place the imperial crown on the head of his only surviving son, Louis the Pious.

Louis then partitioned the empire among his sons, and bitter rivalry and feud and warfare then broke out among father and sons and in 840 Louis died.

Strife and inter-familial conflict continued among Louis’s three surviving sons.

Finally in 842 the three brother met at Verdun where they agreed to split the Carolingian lands three ways. Charles the Bald obtained the western part, Louis the German the eastern and Lothair who retained the title of emperor received the old middle kingdom.

The Treaty of Verdun is important in that it began the shaping of modern France and Germany by giving political recognition to the cultural and linguistic divisions that existed.

In the 9th and 10th centuries what remained of Charlemagne’s empire was battered by new waves of invaders. Scandinavians attacked from the north, Muslims from the south and an new group of Asiatic nomads the Magyars attacked central Europe and northern Italy.

From their bases in north Africa Muslims who were in full command of the sea plundered the coasts of Italy and France. In 827 they began their conquest of Byzantine Sicily and southern Italy and southern France disrupting European trade.

The most destructive raids though came from Scandinavia. In the 9th and 10th centuries Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians all known as Vikings began to move southward from their forests and fjord.

There are many explanations for this expansion, such as overpopulation, a demographic imbalance of too many young men, or that they were defeated war bands who had been expelled from their homelands.

Also the Vikings were great seafarers, who without the benefit of a compass were able to navigate by the stars at night and by the sun during the day.

The Vikings went as far as North America to the west, to the Caspian sea to the east, and the Mediterranean to the south and no part of Europe was immune to their lightening quick raids.

Europe was filled with fear of the Vikings. The Norwegians swung westward to Ireland and the coast of Scotland and between 800 and 850 Ireland was severely ravaged by the Vikings and many monasteries were destroyed as was the culture of the celts.

By 875 the Norwegians were beginning to occupy Iceland, and it was here that their magnificent sagas were preserved. In the 10th century the Icelandic Norse ventured on to Greenland and then on to America.

At the same time the Swede moved into what is Russia as merchants and soldier of fortune.

The Danes took the middle raiding Britain and the shores of Germany, France and Spain.

By the 870’s they had occupied most of Britain north of the Thames. Also at the same time raids increased upon the continent.

The Danes devastated northwest France, destroying dozens of abbeys and towns. The Carolingian King was unable to fend off further Viking attacks and Charles the Simple arranged a truce with the leader of the Norse name Rollo in 911.

The agreement led to the formation of a Viking buffer state, later called Normandy. The Vikings later adopted Christianity.

By the 11th century Normandy became an extremely powerful and influential duchy due to its contact with the Norse.

Europe had no uniform response to the invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries.

In England in 900 the Viking occupation led to a strong national reaction which would eventually lead to a united British kingdom.

Political unification was also the reaction in Germany in 919 under a line of stable kings.

But in France the process and affect of the Viking invasions was one of political fragmentation.

Charlemagne’s weak successors were unable to cope with the Viking assaults and the Merovingian government was unable to hold together the vast territory it held without a bureaucracy or strong central authority.

The result was that many small and independent landowners surrendered both their lands and their personal freedoms to many counts, dukes, and local lords in return for protection.

As this process continued the aristocrats were increasingly dependent on military service rendered by professional knights.

Out of all these processes new patterns of society, feudalism and the manorial estate took shape.

Feudalism is a type of government in which political power is exercised locally by private individuals rather than by agents of a centralized state.

Usually this a transitional stage that follows the collapse of a unified state until conditions permit the re-emergence of a unified state.

French/European feudalism was a combination of 3 basic elements: There was first a lordship or vassal; there was a property element called the fief which the vassal received from his lord in order to ensure loyalty; and the governmental element which was the private exercise of governmental functions over vassals and fiefs.

These elements all have their origins in 5th century Rome when the emperor was unable to protect his subjects and citizens had to depend on a system of patronage.

In theory feudalism was a vast hierarchy.

At the top was the king, and theoretically all the land belonged to him and he kept large areas for his personal use, and in return for loyalty and military service he made grants to dukes, lords.

These nobles were called tenants in chief and in order for them to acquire the services of mounted warriors would portion out large areas of their lands to lesser nobles or knights.

Except for the knight with a single fief a nobleman was usually both a vassal and a lord.

By keeping the king at the top of the social pyramid feudalism left some vestiges of monarchical rule intact.

Though many feudal kings were little more than figureheads this institution of the monarchy was retained out of a sense of tradition.

The personal bond between lord and vassal was a basic feature of feudalism and the vassal would take an oath of loyalty.

The feudal contract between the two was considered sacred and binding upon both parties and breaking this tie of mutual obligations was considered a felony.

The lord gave his vassal protection and justice, while the vassal was obligated to provide military service.

The general atmosphere of the feudal era was one of violence and warfare was considered a normal occupation of the nobility for success offered glory and rich booty.

A result of feudalism was the inclusion of the church in the system and due to the Norse invasions church official were forced to enter into a close relationship with the only power that was able to protect them—the feudal Barons of France and the king of Germany.

Medieval society consisted of three classes: nobles, peasants and clergy.

Feudalism was the characteristic political system of the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries and the economic organization of this period is called manorialism.

The manor varied in size, but a small one might contain only about a dozen households, with each family owning about 30 acres.

The center of the manor was the village and an important feature of the landscape was the village church. The house of the lord might be a castle or a more modest manor house.

All manors contained two types of land, arable and nonarable and part of the arable land was reserved for the lord and was cultivated for him by the serfs.

The lord usually owned 1/6 to 1/3 of the arable land. The rest of the land was allotted to the villagers, though not as a form of private property.

Each tenant was really a shareholder in the village community.

Farming technology was extremely crude and labor intensive.

The manor was administered by officials such as the steward, the bailiff and the reeve.

The steward was the general manager who supervised business of all his lord’s manors and presided over the manorial court.

The job of the Bailiff was to supervise the cultivation of the lord’s fields, collect rents, dues, fines, and inspect the work done by the peasants.

The Reeve was the foreman of the villagers, who was chosen by them and represented their interests.

Within the manor there were four classes, the lord, his officials, the free peasants and the unfree peasants or serfs.

The serfs were bond to the manor and could not leave without the consent of the lord. Serfdom was hereditary and a serf could not appear in court against his lord or another freeman.

As the economic livelihood the peasantry was based on the manor, the peasants had three obligations that they had to fulfill. Services in the form of labor, dues levied on the peasantry, and manorial monopolies, such as when a peasant needed his grain to be milled into flower the peasant would have to have his grain milled at the mill of the lord for a fee.

For the peasant in the Middle Ages the margin between starvation and survival was slim. Famines were common, warfare and wolves were a constant threat, pests could destroy a crop, as could meteorological phenomena.

The peasant lived an extremely austere and poor life.

But they had a few pleasures such as wrestling, cockfighting, they played a crude type of football.

An interesting legacy of the Middle Ages was the concept of chivalry which was a code of conduct that governed the behavior of knights.

Chivalry emerged during the highest development of feudalism in the 11th century and stressed warrior virtues such as prowess in combat, courage, and loyalty. The idea of being better dead than a coward was the center fo for this form of chivalry.

By the 12 and 13th centuries the uncertainty and hardship of earlier medieval life gave way and the idea of chivalry also changed.

Feudal knights began to occupy themselves with deeds of chivalry and gentlemanly pursuit of court life and ladies.

At the height of its development Chivalry was a combination of three elements, warfare, religion and reverence towards women.

However, in reality the average knight was more superstitious than religious, and he continued to fight for fun and plunder and abuse and ravish women, especially those of the lower class.

Noble boys would undergo a rigid training for knighthood.

At the age of seven, a boy was sent t the household of a relative, friend or father’s vassal. There he would become a page where he would learn the basic ideas of religion, manners, hawking and hunting.

At 15 or 16 years of age he became a squire and prepared himself seriously for the art of war. He learned to ride a horse and how to handle a shield, sword and lance correctly.

The squire would also wait on his lord and lady at the table, play musical instruments and sing.

The squire was usually considered ready for knighthood by the age of 21, and by the 12th century the church came to play a major role in this ritual of knighthood.

The life of the nobles centered around the castle.

The earliest of these structures were wooden blockhouse built in the 9th century.

It would not be until the 12th and 13th centuries that massive castles were constructed out of stone.

The central tower was the focal point of the castle.

It was surrounded by an open space that contained storerooms, workshops and a chapel.

The walls of the castle had turrets from which arrows, boiling tar and missiles could by hurled down on an enemy.

outside the wall was the moat which was filled with water and the only entrance to the castle was over the drawbridge. In addition at the entrance of the castle just beyond the drawbridge there was a heavy iron gate called a portcullis that would protect the castle from intruders.

Life in the castle was not romantic. At first the lord lived in the central tower, but by the 13th century the lords lived in more spacious quarters.

The castle was designed to withstand a siege and for this reason it had no large windows, rooms were dark and gloomy, the air was constantly damp due to poor ventilation and a huge fireplace, usually in the great hall provided the only source of warmth.

Chivalry was closely linked with the ethical code of the feudal system.

When the feudal structure changed, the code of chivalry was also affected. By the 13 and 14th centuries strong kings began to centralize control in the various states of Europe and in the process came to rely more and more on the skills of professional soldiers and civil servants, rather than on feudal vassals.

Knights were an anachronism and were no longer needed to fight for their lords, to save helpless maidens, or to administer the law.

Still Chivalry continued as an ideal of noble conduct and reached its furthest expression in the 14th and 15th centuries, but by this time the ethics of chivalry had become empty rituals practiced by a nobility who were no longer essential for the political well-being of the state.

The decline and fall of the western half of the Roman empire in the 5th century created a vacum that was ultimately filled by the political activities of human beings.

Rome’s centralized administration, standing professional army, and unifrom imperial legal system were replace by germanic tribal institutions or by locally adapted remnats of the Roman past.

From these roots and in response to external challenges as well as internal needs emerged a new politcal economic system known as feudalism that distributed authority through a hierarchy of personal relationships between lords and vassals.

Rome’s urbanized economy withered away, yielding gradually to self-sufficient manors devoted to agriculture.

Among the many barbaric Germanic tribes that invaded the empire, the Franks proved to be the most politically astute and the most powerful.

Both of these qualities were exemplified in Clovis and Charlemagne who linked their political ambitions to the dominant religious force in Europe at that time which was Roman Catholicism.

From this union the medieval kingdom of France would develop.

The foundation of the new Europe whose center was no longer the Mediterranean was completed by Charlemagne, but his empire depended to heavily on his personal leadership and did not survive his weak successors.

After this collapse of the Carolingian empire new political, economic, and social patterns evolved to meet the unstable conditions of the time.

Feudalism in a functional sense, can be seen as a bridge between the centralized governments of the Romans and the Carolingians and the national states of modern Europe.

Feudalism was a blend of German and Roman customs that had been enriched by the ideals of Christianity, and created the necessary social, economic and political condition for the survival of medieval civilization in Europe.